Wake Me When It’s 2020

I’m capable of paying attention to a finite number of things at any given point in time.  And right now, the 2020 presidential race is not even close to making that list.

scottball_beto-orourke_alamo-music-hall_campaign_election_senate_11-4-2018-5-1170x782I see stories like this one — “Beto O’Rourke plans ‘reintroduction’ as 2020 buzz fizzles” — or this one — “Florida takes shape as Joe Biden’s firewall” — and I happily skip over them without a second thought or a guilty conscience.  And it’s not just stories about “Beto” or “Joe” I’m not reading:  I’ll also gladly pass on stories about how “Mayor Pete” is being received by big-money donors in Hollywood, or whether Amy Klobuchar’s campaign is gaining any traction, or how Bernie Sanders is doing in tracking polls in New Hampshire.  I’m not going to read any stories about how any of the candidates are doing on fundraising, or whether they are lining up “super-delegates,” or any inside baseball/horse race analysis pieces, either.

There are people who are political junkies, and I’m not one of them.  At this point, the 2020 election is so far away, and there are so many Democratic candidates vying for the nomination, that I really can’t spend time analyzing their positions or trying to figure out their qualifications or capabilities.  With the number of officially declared Democratic candidates at around two dozen, trying to do any meaningful candidate-by-candidate evaluation is an overwhelming task.  So at this point, I’m fine with allowing the political junkies to carry the ball and do whatever they do to let the field be winnowed down to a manageable number.  Whether the winnowing occurs because of fizzled “buzz,” fundraising efforts, or tracking polls, or super-delegates, I don’t care — just don’t expect me to pay any attention until we’ve got a narrower field that consists of people who might actually have a reasonable chance to win the nomination.

In short, wake me when it’s 2020.

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Oakland’s “Pothole Vigilantes”

Oakland, California is in the midst of some tough financial times.  The city is facing a $25 million operating deficit this year, and providing all of the basic services that those of us living in better-managed cities take for granted — like parks, street lights, and adequately maintained roads — just aren’t within Oakland’s current budgetary capabilities.

potholevigilantesRight now, Oakland has 7,700 unaddressed service requests to fix potholes on Oakland city streets.  The quality of streets in Oakland has been found by a recent study to be among the worst in the country, with bone-jarring potholes and other street-quality issues estimated to cost Oakland drivers an extra $1,000 a year in car repair and maintenance costs.  And to add insult to injury for hapless Oakland drivers, Oakland officials have decided that $2.9 million in money that has been generated by California’s high state gas taxes — money that is supposed to be used for road repair — will be used for street lights and parks instead.  Rather than providing some immediate pothole relief with the money earmarked for that purpose, Oakland is promising that it will move forward with a project to spend $100 million on street repairs over the next three years.

So what’s a frustrated Oakland driver who is tired of having to pay hundreds of dollars in car repair costs out of pocket because city fathers aren’t providing basic services to do?  Two Oakland residents have decided to take matters into their own hands.  They call themselves the “Pothole Vigilantes,” and at night they’ve gone out to tackle potholes in certain Oakland neighborhoods.  After they’ve made their repairs, they post videos of their work on Instagram, where they also solicit suggestions for new pothole projects, and donations.

Oakland city administrators asked about the work of the “Pothole Vigilantes” say that they sympathize with the frustration about unrepaired potholes, but they “can’t recommend anyone do this work themselves, not least because it raises safety issues while people are working in the streets.”  No kidding!  People pay taxes so their cities will do the work in a way that is safe, planned, and handled by people who know what they’re doing — but if cities fail to deliver on basic services, they shouldn’t be surprised that some people will take matters into their own hands.

If you had to drive every day on a street with a monster chuckhole that was never fixed and growing ever larger, wouldn’t you be tempted to try to fix it yourself?  And while the safety issues involved in citizens going out to do road repair under cover of darkness are obvious, there’s also something admirable about people who aren’t content to sit back and wait forever for an inept city government and its budgetary shell game to complete repairs, and instead have decided that some self-help is in order.  Don’t blame the fed-up “Pothole Vigilantes,” blame the city government whose failures produced the conditions that gave rise to their vigilantism in the first place.

The Perils Of “Dutch Uncle” Advice

A “Dutch uncle” is somebody who doesn’t sugarcoat things.  When you get “Dutch uncle” advice, you’re getting a firm expression of a person’s unvarnished, straight-from-the-shoulder views of what you should, and shouldn’t, do.

dutch-uncle-image-of-a-stern-uncleConsequently, true “Dutch uncle” advice is often unwelcome.  Some people don’t want a “Dutch uncle” telling them what to do — they want somebody to give them a sympathetic hug and a piece of chocolate and tell them they’ve just had some bad luck and things are bound to turn out for the better, eventually.  Rather than hearing from the “Dutch uncle,” they’d rather hear from, say, the “hippie aunt.”

JP Morgan Chase learned this recently when it gave some classic “Dutch uncle” advice on its Twitter feed.  The bank evidently offers a weekly “#MondayMotivation” tweet, and one of the recent tweets was framed as a conversation where the customer asks “Why is my balance so low?” and the customer’s bank account responds:  “make coffee at home…eat the food that’s already in the fridge…you don’t need a cab, it’s only three blocks.”  In short, if you want to have more money in your bank account, pay attention to what you’re spending your money on and consider whether you really need to buy that caramel-drizzled frappacino latte grande every day.

Not surprisingly, JP Morgan Chase’s “Dutch uncle” advice was met with a hail of dead cats.  Some elected officials responded that JP Morgan Chase should pay its workers more, and argued that the problem isn’t frivolous spending, it’s what workers are making in the first place.  Other people argued that it isn’t about individual personal responsibility, it’s about the “hollowing out of the middle class,” and that Chase’s unwanted advice shows “stunning tone-deafness about the economic realities facing ordinary Americans” — even though the economy seems to be doing pretty well right now.   Others used the tweet as a chance to point out that Chase charges its customers high fees, and that Chase got a bailout from taxpayers during the Great Recession because of its own financial misadventures.  Only a few people rose to the defense of Chase’s advice, and Chase deleted the tweet after a few hours.

These days, apparently, nobody wants to hear that they have some degree of control over their own lives, or that their personal decisions may have produced their current predicament, because it’s easier to just blame somebody or something else.  Politicians are happy to promote the notion of helpless victimhood, because it promotes the perception that only political leaders can actually create change that affect the lives of individual Americans.

In our current culture, “Dutch uncles” aren’t welcome.  Say hello to the hippie aunt.

How Old Is “Too Old”?

This week former Vice President Joe Biden formally declared his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.  He joins a very crowded field of politicians vying for the chance to square off against President Donald Trump in 2020.

bernie-and-joe-like-donald-trumpJoe Biden is 76 years old.  He was born on November 20, 1942; if he were to be elected, he would be 77 on Election Day, and 78 when he takes office.  Bernie Sanders, who is another candidate for the Democratic nomination, is 77 years old and, being born on September 8, 1941, would be 79 on Election Day in 2020.  If either of those candidates won, they would easily set a new record for the oldest person to be newly elected to the presidency — a record now held by the current occupant of the White House, who was a mere 70 when he was inaugurated.  (The oldest President to be elected, period, was Ronald Reagan, who was 73 when he won reelection in a landslide in 1984 — a record that would be obliterated if the 2020 race turned out to be either Trump-Biden or Trump-Sanders.)

There have been some old Presidents in American history — some good, some not so much — and clearly people’s perceptions of what it means to be old in our current day are changing.  As average life spans increase and medical care, diet, fitness, and general attention to health improve, some people argue that aging is really all about a state of mind, and “60 is the new 40.”  And no doubt Biden and Sanders will produce medical reports that show that they are healthy, active, vibrant, and ready to handle the demands of an incredibly taxing job.

Still, Biden and Sanders are really pushing the presidential age envelope into uncharted territory.  How will people react when, as Election Day nears, they really ponder the prospect of an 80-year-old President?  No doubt people will be looking carefully at all three of the septuagenarians — Trump, Biden, and Sanders — for signs of age-related physical feebleness and mental slippage.  Age is something that can’t be hidden, and one serious memory glitch during a debate could be all she wrote for a candidacy.

I don’t think it is improperly ageist to wonder about how age affects fitness for the Oval Office.  In 2020, we may be answering the question:  “How old is too old?”

The Boy Who Cried “Regulation”

Recently Facebook’s billionaire CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that called for “a more active role for governments and regulators” to establish “new rules” for the internet.  The op-ed has provoked lots of comment.

facebook-ceo-mark-zuckerberg-testifies-before-us-congress-highlightsZuckerberg’s op-ed piece begins:  “Technology is a major part of our lives, and companies such as Facebook have immense responsibilities. Every day, we make decisions about what speech is harmful, what constitutes political advertising, and how to prevent sophisticated cyberattacks. These are important for keeping our community safe. But if we were starting from scratch, we wouldn’t ask companies to make these judgments alone.”  He says he agrees with people who say Facebook has “too much power over speech” and argues that government regulation is needed in four area — harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.  Zuckerberg adds:  “By updating the rules for the Internet, we can preserve what’s best about it — the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things — while also protecting society from broader harms.”

Zuckerberg’s article, while couched as a call for regulation, reads like a PR piece for Facebook; it argues, among other things, that Facebook has developed “advanced systems for finding harmful content, stopping election interference and making ads more transparent” and has taken other steps in the four areas.

It’s safe to say that Zuckerberg’s clarion call has been viewed with significant skepticism in the United States and abroad.  An article in The Hill says that “[r]egulators, lawmakers and activists who have grown wary of Facebook saw Zuckerberg’s move less as a mea culpa and more as an effort to shape future regulations in his favor,” and quotes, for example, a UK regulator who says that if Zuckerberg really believes what he has written he can start by dropping an appeal of a $560,000 fine the UK imposed for Facebook’s activities in connection with the Cambridge Analytica scandal.  Others are leery of inviting the government to regulate on-line speech, and believe that Facebook — having thrived and made millions in a regulation-free environment — now wants to see regulations imposed in order to complicate and thwart efforts by new competitors to grab some of Facebook’s social media market share.

The reaction to Zuckerberg’s op-ed piece illustrates what happens when you have frittered away your credibility.  Facebook’s history doesn’t exactly fill people with confidence that the company has users’ privacy and best interests at heart; too often, the company appears to have placed generating revenue above user concerns and data protection.  I’m inherently dubious of any governmental action that touches free speech, and large-scale regulatory efforts often impose staggering costs without providing much benefit — but even if you think such efforts are a good idea, Zuckerberg is exactly the wrong person to float such proposals.  He’s like the boy who cried wolf.

Old-School Joe

Joe Biden is an “old school” politician.  First elected to the U.S. Senate from Delaware in 1972 — that’s almost 50 years ago, folks — he traces his roots to a different political era.  Joe Biden has been involved in politics at the national level for longer than just about anyone you can think of, and certainly longer than anyone else who might be a serious candidate for President in 2020.

screen_shot_2019-04-02_at_10.23.19_pm_0It’s pretty clear that Joe Biden is what you might call a “hands-on” politician, the kind who likes the handshakes and arm around the shoulder photos and ropeline grappling with admirers.  That’s why you can find countless photos of Joe Biden in physical contact with somebody — some of whom look happy about it, and some of whom look very uncomfortable — and why some of the people who are attempting to explain his current predicament say things like “he hugs everybody.”  It’s a political style that was commonplace in decades past, when some politicians believed that the personal touch and laying of hands was a way to establish a memorable connection with voters and establish power relationships with other politicians.  The backslaps and shoulder grabs were also a way to allow the politician to remain the center of attention, even when someone else was getting an award or making a speech.  Such politicians embodied the old comment about the politician who so craved attention that he wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.

When you’ve been playing the political games for as long as Joe Biden has, perhaps you lose touch with prevailing views, and perhaps you lose a good sense of the line between an appropriate contact and creepy, personal-space-invading behavior.  No one, male or female, is going to object to handshakes, or a backslap or tap on the shoulder.  But grabbing the upper arms or shoulders of a woman to pull her close, smelling and kissing the hair of a woman, and leaning in so that your face is inches away clearly cross the line into more intimate contact and should be reserved for close friends and colleagues.  The fact that Joe Biden was routinely engaging in such conduct with complete strangers, from biker women in diners to political candidates at rallies to the wives of people appointed to federal jobs, shows that he simply didn’t — and perhaps still doesn’t — understand what are long-standing, and commonly accepted, social boundaries.

Joe Biden’s old-school roots may help to explain his behavior toward women, but they don’t excuse them.  Part of being an effective politician is having sensitivity to what is going on, and how society — and standards and boundaries — are changing.  Joe Biden apparently lacks that quality.  His clutching and space-invading behavior with women is creepy and a real problem, but in my view the fact that he apparently didn’t understand that until now raises deeper concerns about him.

Congestion Taxes

It sounds like an April Fool’s Day joke, but it isn’t:  New York lawmakers have approved a budget that will impose a tax on drivers who venture into Manhattan — one of the most congested driving areas in the world.  Drivers in New York City not only will be cursing the gridlock, now they’ll be paying extra for the privilege, too.

maxresdefaultThe budget deal will create a six-member commission that will set the fee to be paid by drivers who cross into Manhattan below 61st Street.  Because the idea is to use the tax to reduce congestion, pricing is expected to be variable, with higher rates during the peak periods and lower rates at night and on weekends.  Electronic readers will assess the tolls, which are expected to be between $11 and $12 for cars during daylight periods and about $25 for trucks.  The tax is forecast to generate about $1 billion in revenues, which New York lawmakers promise to use to address desperate repair needs in New York City’s subway and commuter rail systems.

Congestion taxes are used in other congested cities of the world, like London, but New York City will be the first U.S. city to adopt them.  And if the taxes work as planned in the Big Apple, it isn’t hard to foresee other congested areas of the country, like southern California, adopting them, too.  After all, local governments are always looking for new revenue sources, and this particular approach can be pitched as a method of using taxes to achieve a virtuous result — reduced road congestion and, if the tax revenues are earmarked, improved mass transit.

I’ve driven through New York City exactly once, in a rental car on a Saturday morning when the roads weren’t bad.  I can’t imagine what how nerve-wracking it would be to drive there on a daily basis — and now to pay special taxes for that added stress.

And here’s what’s interesting, too:  if congestion taxes are, in fact, designed to reduce congestion, that reflects an acknowledgement that taxes influence behavior.  That is, such taxes presuppose that some drivers will forgo taking their cars into the congested zone in order to avoid the tax — otherwise, the tax would have no effect on congestion.  But if taxes do in fact affect behavior, and people take action to avoid taxes, what does that mean for New York and New York City generally, which have some of the highest income taxes and other taxes in the U.S.?